Although the curators of this edition of the Berlin Biennale have decided to thematically focus on the 'present', it is a different present from that with which contemporary art of the last two decades has been preoccupied. On one hand, their notion of contemporaneity comes after the internet and is described as 'post-contemporary'. On the other, their present, as evident in the title of the Biennale, comes in drag—it is performed not exclusively by human agents, but perhaps also through a civilisational reliance on algorithmic intelligence that is equally capable of executing a sense of the present.
With a busy schedule, the curatorial team made themselves available for a few questions about their plans and hopes for the 9th Berlin Biennale.
I think this is one reason some people are upset at the Biennale: it's not about objects, or about luxury, or about the 'inside' world of art. It's focused on understanding our complicated relationships with the world we're in—our internal conflicts as consumers, as political beings, as 'leftists', as people who want to do good within the world, as people who feel powerless, as people who are complicit, as people who are just people, as individuals within a system, and as individuals who generate content for this system.
Artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas' work has been particularly controversial, and is especially important. Kulendran Thomas looks at how the emergence of a new contemporary art market in Sri Lanka (accompanying the economic liberalisation that followed a genocide) functioned as part of a process of 'soft' (or economic) ethnic cleansing, whereby the spoils of prosperity, such as contemporary art, became a sort of retrospective justification for the violence on which that prosperity was founded.
Kulendran Thomas works through the idea that emancipatory communalism for a stateless nation might not be achieved today by force or resistance, or even through any mass-collective moral choice, but possibly through making something that people want. In a way, it's a subversion of the Silicon Valley 'disruptive' mentality, used to chart an alternative scenario for displaced people, evolving a new economic model out of the existing economic system without friction.
At the outset, we thought of DIS as a space in which ideas and value systems are not overtly analysed or critiqued, but represented in their most heightened configuration. We're political without the usual critical melancholy. We don't have a standard oppositional critique and most of the artists we're working with don't either. If anything, critique should occur as a compulsory reaction in the body of the public, rather than as a field of specialised labour.
This is a show about the present, and the present is extremely troubling. In this show you don't get an opt out card. It's aggressive and almost violent in its rendering of the present, and the audience is fully implicated. There is no escape and there is no release valve for tensions. If you point fingers, you have to point them at yourself. So, people may leave feeling angry or uncomfortable, which is a valid response, and it's better than them feeling gratified, as if they'd just recycled, or donated to a cause.
It's funny because our office (and home in Berlin) at KW Institute for Contemporary Art has really bad wifi. The rest of the team is on desktops with somewhat better Ethernet connections, but we use our laptops and the Internet is incredibly slow; we were calling it the No-Internet Biennale. Definitely it is not a nostalgic show. There are so many ways and lenses through which to look at the 9th Berlin Biennale, post-Internet is just one of them—and maybe not the most interesting. In a sense it's a background condition, but not a closed circuit. Nobody's work is simply about the Internet—but the effects of technology and our compulsive connectivity are deeply felt.
We were really inspired by Ursula Franklin, a German/Canadian physicist and historian who's in her 90s now and was interviewed for the Berlin Biennale 9 catalogue. Her 'Real World of Techonology' lectures from the 1980s release us from our relationship to technology as a sum of artifacts and gadgets, instead positing technology as the division of labor, and the structures that shape and control us. To her the most influential technologies are 'social innovations' that are increasingly about structuring discipline and compliance and diminishing reciprocity—this has been woven into the fabric of politics, banks, schools, government, transportation and distribution of energy. Following this logic we can see how the Internet (as the latest structuring technology) is re-shaping all of these societal elements. At the core of the Biennale is a consideration of these immense structures of technology and communication, and our position within them as individuals.
Many people see DIS as another way that the art world 'eats' other cultural industries. Ironically, that's just a magazine. We are not incredibly invested in the nomenclature of who is an artist versus who is not an artist. However, it is a reflection of the creative industries today that many of our participants do not identify with a single market or field of production.
We don't take for granted that contemporary art will exist any more than fashion, music or any other cogs exist in the culture industry. Still we are beholden to its formats and conventions, even if we 'disrupt' them—and that 'disruption' is precisely what beholds us to similarities within the 'culture industry' more generally. After all, it's a cliché of the 'creative class' that everyone can be an artist, that it doesn't matter, since we're all content farms anyway. At the same time, people are very tied to their categories: we are dealing with a professionalised 'art world' after all. This is a paradox.
'DISCREET, an Intelligence Agency for the People,' is a platform by Armen Avanessian and Alexander Martos. It assumes the complexity of our society and the media-sociological revolution of the Internet/digital—we humans are no longer the only big players. Therefore our point of departure, the present, has lost its primacy. Algorithms, memes, hyperstitions etc. are instead ruling from the future. And the future can be predicted with incredible accuracy but is uncontrollable. DISCREET is one example for how to use the field of art without producing objects. So, yes if memes really are more important/relevant today than contemporary art, then BB9 is also an investigation of what 'gaining traction' in the present condition might actually look like. The big mistake people make is to see this as a disillusioned or cynical or fatalist perspective.
Berlin has low stress, low consumption, and guilt-free partying for 48 hours. The space of night-life, gay clubs, physical proximity in dark spaces with music has been one generating factor for us (and of course so many others) in terms of our community and grounds for creativity. This is celebrated here—but more—so the club seems to be a space of freedom and anonymity in Berlin.
But, again we lived and worked at the KW on Augustrasse. It's pretty monastic to live and work within an art institution. Berlin (the city itself) is almost self-conscious, to gentrification, to histories, in a way that New York is not. When a high rise goes up in New York, nobody notices or cares. Here in Berlin it is deeply felt. We could see ourselves here, but not now. Now we are planning our somewhat complicated return to New York.
What comes to mind when you hear 'paradessence'?
The rise of hyper-individualism in the face of the utter powerlessness of the individual. The shift to a personalised, wireless world of networked individualism, with each person switching between ties and networks against the backdrop of complex global concerns, impossible to process on an human scale. The feeling when you open your inbox, and you see a message or notification from your boss, your Tinder date, followed by an imploring call to arms about greenhouse gases, the Zika virus, and voting in the next election. The way words and expressions are co-opted and re-branded by corporations and interest groups, like Patagonia's 'Don't buy this jacket' campaign which uses anti-consumerism to sell jackets. Feeling healthy by drinking a green juice while wasting vegetable pulp that emits methane. Soylent, the mysterious substance on the cover of the catalog, which promises the food of the future, while claiming to replace food altogether, but is not approved as food in Germany. —[O]